A year ago, the struggling University of Maryland basketball team used a championship at the Chaminade Christmas Classic in Hawaii as a catalyst for a successful season.
The Terrapins hope that Saturday's ECAC Holiday Festival championship provides much the same impetus for their Atlantic Coast Conference season.
After ringing out the 1990 portion of its schedule with a rousing, 78-69 victory over 12th-ranked South Carolina in the final at Madison Square Garden, Maryland (6-3) opens its ACC schedule Wednesday night at Wake Forest.
"I think we just have to look at what we did here and go from there," Maryland coach Gary Williams said after the Terps won for the fourth straight time and, in the process, ended an eight-game winning streak for South Carolina (9-2).
The Terps went from nearly terrible earlier in the season to terrific in the course of two games against Rutgers and South Carolina. And Walt Williams went from erratic to dominating.
The junior point guard took over both games, finishing with 30 points against the Scarlet Knights on Thursday night and 26 against the Gamecocks, to go with four assists and only one turnover in 37 minutes.
"Walt was amazing," Gary Williams said of Walt Williams, who led an 11-0 run after South Carolina had closed a 13-point deficit to 63-62 with 6 minutes, 24 seconds remaining. "But a lot of guys played up to or beyond their capabilities."
All five Maryland starters were in double figures for the first time this season. Senior center Cedric Lewis played one of his best all-around games at Maryland, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and three steals.
The championship was the second in as many trips to the Holiday Festival for Gary Williams, whose last Ohio State team beat St. John's in the 1988 final. It also renewed the confidence of Maryland players, who had been unimpressive during recent victories over Cal-Irvine and Lafayette.
"It's going to help us when we play nationally ranked teams in our conference," said Gary Williams, whose team will meet North Carolina and Duke next week. "We now have the confidence that we can beat a top 20 team. I don't know if we believed that before."
Said sophomore guard Kevin McLinton: "Nobody gave us a chance to win this tournament. I think this will open up a lot of people's eyes."
Considering the state of the program since it was put on three years' probation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association last March, the victory was significant. It gave the Terps a chance to win back some of the respect they might have lost and gain some positive national attention.
"Not many people gave these guys a chance to be good," said Gary Williams. "They've had to fight some other things that other college basketball players don't have to deal with. This is a big night for Maryland basketball."
When Maryland won the tournament in Hawaii, beating a pretty good East Tennessee State team in the semifinals, the players celebrated their victory with a red-eye flight back on Christmas morning.
This time, there was a long, happy bus ride back to College Park. But, unlike in Hawaii, the Terps were allowed to cut down the nets at the Garden and savor the victory and their moment in the spotlight.
"This is our ACC tournament," said sophomore forward Evers Burns.
Because of the NCAA penalties, there will be no ACC tournament for Maryland in March and no NCAA tournament for the next two years. But the game very few saw -- a record-low crowd of 5,082 watched it in New York, and the game was a tape-delayed telecast -- will be remembered by this Maryland team for a long time.
"It was special," said Walt Williams.
He should know. He was, too.